Never let a crisis go to waste.
It's a cynical maxim in politics, but one the Trump administration appears to be following now as it maintains pressure on Iran and Venezuela: Refuse to relax economic stress amid the destabilizing effect of the coronavirus pandemic, in hopes of splintering enemy regimes.
Humanitarian supplies are technically exempt from US sanctions and other measures meant to throttle governments. But sanctions combined with oil price collapse, the closure of the global economy and the cratering of economic life in both nations can impair their capacity to equip for and finance the fight against the virus.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has pleaded directly with the American people to ask US President Donald Trump to ease sanctions. Difficulties obtaining supplies are hurting relief efforts in Iran, he said.
Keeping the pressure up means gambling with civilian lives. The pandemic's high toll in Iran and fears of a nightmare to come in Venezuela have already sparked calls here for the US to relieve sanctions as a humanitarian gesture. But the administration is standing firm, rejecting the idea that US relief could convince beleaguered populations that America is on their side.
In both states, US pressure coincides with intricate internal political calculations, state-ordered lockdowns that could bottle up political dissent, and tragically rundown public health systems. Last week, the US picked its moment to hit Nicolas Maduro, whom it does not recognize as Venezuela's legitimate president, with narco-trafficking charges and a $15 million reward for his arrest.
Washington is taking a risk. Hardliners here argue that letting up pressure now would only reward tyrannical governments for creating impoverished societies vulnerable to the pandemic. But Trump's administration has already shown that its capacity to read and influence politics in Iran and Venezuela is far more limited that it expected.
When civilian lives are on the line, what is the moral calculus of accelerating a so-far failed "maximum pressure" campaign on Iran and a regime change push in Venezuela? And is hardball geopolitics – even in the midst of a pandemic – just the way the game is played in an "American First" world?
This article was first published on cnn.com.